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A Community Mindset with William Azaroff

Date Published: September 22, 2020

Brightside and its CEO, William Azaroff, build communities for those who need it most, and we mean that quite literally. Brightside is a private-sector, non-profit affordable housing organization that owns and manages 26 buildings with almost 1000 units across Vancouver for people who struggle to meet market housing demands. Listen to hear more about how they work to build a better housing experience for Vancouver’s most vulnerable communities with a community-based mindset.

We’re going to talk about impact sourcing otherwise known as social procurement to public owners here in Canada. A few years ago, one of our team members, Bob found himself homeless and on the street with substance abuse issues. Bob was in and out of treatment facilities until one day he met a social enterprise that exists to give people like Bob, a second chance. That social enterprise helped Bob get a job as a construction worker. Filled with hope and a smile on his face, Bob eagerly came to work each day. He worked hard and he found positive role models and soon Bob was placed in the apprenticeship program. Bob became a journeyman carpenter and is now a superintendent with Chandos.

Bob was passionate about social procurement and so is Chandos. Why is this? It’s because social procurement is a way to maximize community benefit of infrastructure funding. When a contractor like Chandos gives someone like Bob, a chance, three things happen. First, Bob goes from a path towards crime and/or poverty to a high paying career in the construction industry. Second, the employer gains a loyal, highly engaged employee who blows the doors off of everyone else from a productivity standpoint. Third, the strain on the Canadian social system is decreased because Bob is no longer reliant on his support.

Here we sit in the midst of the pandemic, which has dramatically increased the number of people who are in need of a chance. I’m excited to be speaking with William Azaroff, the CEO of Brightside Community Homes Foundation, an organization dedicated to making housing accessible in Vancouver, one of the most unaffordable cities in the planet. William was a longtime executive at Vancity and is writing a book on leadership lessons that he gained through his time as an independent filmmaker. William has become an amateur music producer, proudly producing his son’s albums. William, it’s great to be chatting. How are you?

I’m great. It’s nice to be here. Thanks, Tim.

Tell me a little bit more about what you do at Brightside.

Brightside is non-profit and we have 26 buildings in the City of Vancouver. We provide homes to 1,100-plus people. We’ve got ambitious plans to double the number of people we can house over the next ten years. We believe that providing homes to people in an expensive city at a price point that people who are maybe falling behind or having trouble getting ahead is critically important. I’ve been here for about a year and it’s been an absolute pleasure.

I must say that we’re pleased to be working with you on your project. It’s been great and we’re excited about it. One of the things that I’m interested in is authentic values. Maybe we should start off by talking about values. Values are an important foundation for any organization and sometimes it’s hard to connect them to the operations of the day to day or the work. I like how Brightside has made the connection between inspiration and action. Tell me a bit more about how Brightside moves from inspiration to action.

I was probably in my 30s when I realized the tremendous importance of working for an organization whose values you align with, and whose values drive decisions in your organization supposed to be words on the wall or on a website. One of the things I was attracted to in Brightside was, I think a lot of times values contain words that are a bit generic. Words like integrity and things that you shouldn’t need to point a spotlight on, they should be baked in.

The four words that are our values of Brightside are clarity, resourceful, inclusive, and progressive. One of the things I love about that is two of those words, clarity and resourceful are operational words. The pragmatic side of running the organization and the two other words, inclusive and progressive are aspirational words. If we have to make a decision, what’s the most inclusive or progressive decision we can make? Those words more than any organization I’ve worked for actually drive decisions. I’ve been in my first board meeting and we were making a decision about becoming a living wage employer.

There are expenses and there are “pros and cons,” but we’ve got our values and our vision up on the room wall. A board member pointed out and she said, “This isn’t a pro and con decision. This is a values decision and looking at those four words, we need to make this decision and then figure out how to work through the pros and cons after or the expenses to the organization.” My heart soared because that’s how I think we need to be making decisions as organizations to be new in the role here and see that this is the board and how they discuss things. It aligns perfectly with where I think organizations need to make decisions.

I started with this story about Bob. That’s a common story and there are a few similar stories with our organization. What’s interesting to me is that employees are looking for an employer where they’re of personal value and the values of the organization align. This idea of social procurement that we work with is attractive to a lot of people that are looking for work in the construction industry. Do you see a parallel with Brightside in that your authenticity around values is attracting people that you may not have had working with you otherwise?

Yes, for sure. The opportunity that I saw with Brightside is we were a great not-for-profit who delivered on our mission extremely well around affordable housing, but there’s an opportunity. We’ve started doing this to be a value-driven organization were beyond the provision of housing, to those who have trouble meeting the market demands in Vancouver, every procurement decision, every strategic decision, every hiring decision we make, every time we spend money, we need to be filtered through that lens. Let’s purchase at a local company. Let’s purchase from a coop or a B corp or social enterprise instead of a for-profit business. As we move along that spectrum, what I’m finding is the employee’s commitment and their passion for what we’re doing enhances because they’re here for those same reasons.

Some of them could earn more money elsewhere or could be working in a larger organization where their room for advancement is more obvious than at a smaller organization. They’re committed to this because they can see that we are walking the talk with every step we take. That is incredibly important in our employee base especially through this COVID pandemic has been an incredible source of inspiration to me. Their commitment, their resilience, they’re thinking about things that I couldn’t possibly think about all these things, and bringing forward ideas to improve the lives of our residents, employees, or the community has been incredibly inspiring.

You mentioned that inclusion is one of the values of the organization. We have included that as one of our values too. It’s a great alignment there. How do you walk the talk in terms of inclusion? This whole idea of social procurement is about including people who’ve been marginalized in the workforce. How do you do that in your organization?

I feel lucky that I work for an organization. We’re right up to the board level. There’s a commitment to this. When I started, the board had hired a diversity inclusion consultant to look at the organization and where are our opportunities. I was lucky that I came in and this work was ongoing. What we did was we interviewed everyone in the organization. Because we’re a small organization, we didn’t have an abundance of HR practices and policies that were onerous, we could rethink a lot of those things. Going back to the values, we talk a lot about aspirational and pragmatism.

We don’t want such aspirational policies or practices that we can’t implement them, and we don’t want to be operational that we forget about being ambitious. We’ve done a few things. One is that we are creating a new HR roadmap, a people plan that takes diversity inclusion into consideration every step of the way. The way we are going to start doing performance reviews, the way we onboard and recruit, these are incredibly important things because many people get left out of systems or feel excluded from systems because the systems don’t contemplate inclusion. A lot of not-for-profit boards could do this.

We can have between 8 to 12 people on our board, and we’ve historically always had nine. We had two people who were stepping off for natural reasons. They’d been on the board for a long time so we’re down to seven. Instead of bringing in two people to bring us back up to nine, we brought in five and went all the way up to twelve which is the maximum we can have. By doing so, we gained gender equity, gender parity, 50/50. We brought in people of different ethnic backgrounds to be able to represent more of what Vancouver looks like. We brought in a younger people who’d never served on a board before with some naive experience or fresh thinking. We brought in skills that we needed on our board, perspectives that weren’t represented.

Instead of waiting, it might’ve taken us 5 to 10 years to get to this level of inclusion if we’d brought in one person here and one person there, and this year nobody’s leaving, next year two people leave, whatever. We were able to get there quickly. As people roll-off, we can decide whether to naturally go back to nine or continue to replace them with people who bring a diverse point of view. That’s one example that I think mixes the pragmatic and the aspirational in a way that a lot of not-for-profits can do, but they have to have the willingness and the commitment to do so.

There’s an interesting parallel in our business. At the board level, we are starting to get more gender equity there. Certainly, in the organization, women are underrepresented in the construction industry. We’ve got a vision that as a contractor, we start to be one of the first contractors in North America that looks like the society in which we operate. That’s a big idea in our industry and we’re working hard at it.

I think one of the things there that’s key is to be open to hiring from different backgrounds. Often in our industry, the go-to hiring practice is to go hire engineering students. By default, you’ve got a heavy bias in terms of the kinds of people that you’re hiring there. Whereas if we went and hired a Liberal Arts student and took a view that we can teach the technical aspects of our industry as opposed to the leadership piece, you get a better outcome. Construction is about organization and communication. Sometimes hiring with a technical background doesn’t give you the best in that.

I think getting to the next level is going to involve us having a system that will allow us to hire from more diverse backgrounds and give them the technical skills that are required to do the leadership that we do in the construction industry. I also think that’s part of why governments are interested in the idea of social procurement. Back to my story about Bob, you have to be open to hiring from a different background in order to deliver community benefits. That gives rise to what is community benefit and how do you define it. What does it mean to you when we talk about community benefits?

The story you told us is such an important one that taking steps within a sector that has historically been male-driven to make conscious steps towards it. One form of community benefit for sure is to be a leader within a sector and to buck the trend along with other trends and do things differently. Business and the economy is a subsidiary of society. It can be what we want it to be and I think so much of the time the prevailing thought has become the opposite where what do we need to do for the economy? What do we need to do for business? Then society needs to adjust.

I would define community benefit broadly which is making decisions that help create a more level playing field, help create more opportunities for people to get the most out of their lives, and look at ways that some people have systemic trouble and systemic barriers to doing that. Also, creating opportunities that way as well as looking at our environmental actions and what we’re doing to greatly improve things so that we have a planet that’s habitable for humans and other species.

I think it’s a broad set of principles, a triple bottom line approach that we have to be financially sustainable but to what end. For a not-for-profit, our whole purpose, even if we did nothing other than serving our purpose and didn’t look at being a values-based organization going beyond that, we’d still be providing affordable homes to people. I think there’s so much more we can do to enable a healthier environment. On the project, we’re working on together, for example, that’s a passive house project and the prevailing wisdom is a passive house at its cost. We’re trying to build affordable housing. Those two things are odds.

Two things, one is so much construction in the city are condos. As the owner-operator, we anticipate owning and operating this building for decades and decades, 50, 60 years or more. We will reap the benefits in a way that strata is a bit more abstract so why wouldn’t we? If we care about this planet, those are the costs of doing business and we have to take into account those externalities as opposed to building it as cheaply as we can and regret it for the next 60 years.

The partnership we have on this project will enable us to build 147 passive house standards, and some beautiful amenities spaces, a place for people to not just gather together, but a communal kitchen. They can make meals together. A lot of outdoor space and space for people to have community gardens. These are all things that create homes rather than domiciles. Those things are important in spending without going crazy. The project still has to pencil but there’s a lot we can do if we’re committed to these things. I would define community benefit to give you a long-winded answer broadly.

What are the interesting thoughts in this idea of community benefit and buying local? There are two views of that. I’m interested to get your take. I love logging onto Amazon like everyone else and ordering my stuff on Amazon and having it show up four hours later. There’s certainly an environmental footprint that goes with that. That quick and easy access to a global supply chain people want, but at the same time, people want to have the ethically sourced meal to a farm to table restaurant. How can those two demands in the world co-exist? Unpack that for a little bit. How would you think about that?

I don’t know if the pandemic has changed my thinking on this or not, and maybe it should. What’s been an odd benefit of the pandemic is that it’s forced us to slow down. We’ve only ordered from Amazon once through this whole thing. We’re finding a lot of local businesses are making themselves available for some delivery or some pickup. Because we’ve got more home time on our hand, our weekends are now mostly staying at home, going for walks, we’re putting that forward.

I think that the speed at which we expect things to happen as a society is part of our potential downfall. Things can’t keep happening at speed. There isn’t an inherent tension. That’s not to say people shouldn’t ever use Amazon, but I do hope that one of the outcomes of all this is some conscious consuming around when do you use Amazon because you need something that I don’t know how to source it any other way and we need it in four hours like you say.

When is it making a thoughtful choice that this isn’t going to show up until tomorrow so how do I find a local business who is hurting in these times and who needs my support? I’ve long looked at every dollar I spend as an investment, and it feels more and more like spending at Amazon is throwing it into the ether and it’s being sucked out of the local community and going into the pockets of a few. Going and making sure that we’re buying from the local hardware store even if it’s a little less convenient means that that money is circulating the local economy. I think it does take people looking at these externalities and taking that into account and maybe that will happen more with the situation, or maybe I’m being overly optimistic.

One of the central ideas around social procurement or impact sourcing as it’s sometimes referred to is this idea that every time you spend a dollar, it’s a vote for the kind of world that you want to see. Buy local as opposed from the faceless multinational. We even see that a bit on our job sites. We can buy sandwiches from Subway and have them on the job site and for the same cost, we can have sandwiches from a culinary center in Vancouver as an example. That’s an organization, social enterprise, it’s a play at–risk youth.

Being thoughtful about where that spend goes and being intentional about it is important. It leads to my next question which is this idea of the pandemic and the idea of building it back better. Many parts of the economy were not ideal so why should we get back to the way it used to be? Why don’t we use this as an opportunity to accelerate change? This is an interesting idea. It might be hard to execute. What would you say to other CEOs thinking about using the pandemic as a mechanism to accelerate change in the organization?

I worry a lot and I listened to a lot of podcasts where people are asked what will be different after this. The pessimist in me worries that people are going to be in such a rush to go back to how things were that we’re going to miss this huge opportunity to create “new normal” that many people are talking about. We already see evidence of it as restrictions are opened up in different places that people are rushing back to try and reclaim and recreate what was. I think that’s shortsighted. There’s a bunch of obvious little things. We were an organization that couldn’t work from home where we were lucky that we got onto the cloud not long before the pandemic and it’s been working seamlessly. There’s a bunch of things around the frequency of our all-staff meetings which used to be monthly. For the first two months of the pandemic, they were twice weekly, and now we’re once weekly.

To connect that frequently has been phenomenal and that’ll continue. There’s a bunch of little things around technology and how frequently you meet and how we meet, how people can work from home, work flexibly and work odd hours if that works better for their lifestyle, that we weren’t flexible on before. Much more to your question, we also have to look at who’s being left behind, the impacts of our decisions, our procurement, spending money, and all of these things. There’s an opportunity to take a breath and to make decisions that create more equity in the economy. The lesson of the pandemic has to be that we’re all interconnected whether we want to admit it or not, that your health if we work together in the same office, becomes my health.

We can be afraid of that or we can embrace it and therefore I wish you good health. It’s worth something to me to make sure your health is good and not just yours, but also another professional and another white man, but also the health of all our communities and all of society, even those for whom keeping up their health is a lot more arduous because of the roadblocks that have been placed in their way. It’s interesting because the thing I’ve been thinking is we’re not dealing with a pandemic, but we’re dealing with protests around civil unrest and inequality in society. It feels like these two things together could create some change that is much needed around a different society that prioritizes things quite differently than the road we’ve been going down.

There’s this idea of using COVID as a slingshot that accelerates positive change. It’s a singular opportunity for business and government leaders to use what’s in front of us as a catalyst for change. Another thing that I talked about Bob, the employee that works with us. The story there is he was looking for a chance. Someone gave him a chance through a social enterprise. He got a job in the construction industry, has a fulfilling career with us, and wants to pay it forward and give back the same way he had an opportunity.

That’s a common story, but then there’s also another story where we have employees who all want to make a difference and all want to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves. They’re attracted to our organization because they have an ability to have an impact in the communities, in which we work. Our project managers running a $40 million, $50 million projects are making $40 million or $50 million worth of buying decisions.

We’re doing a job in Vancouver where it’s an $80 million something project, and we’ve made a commitment to do 10% impact sourcing at zero premium cost to the owner. We’re working with social enterprises to make that happen. The people working on those projects have this sense of purpose and a sense that they’re part of something bigger than themselves because we’re practicing social procurement. Can you talk a little bit about the idea of passion and purpose inside of your organization? Do you see the same effect as people get connected or have an ability to have a greater impact, they have more meaning and they’re happier in their jobs? What’s your take on that?

You’ve named it. My whole career, the unspoken but explicit message was we have the personal things we care about in our lives, and then we have a business. We keep those two things separately, but we don’t bring humanity truly into the business. When I started at Vancity, I was there for fourteen years. I job hopped a lot before in a way that wasn’t great for my resume. When I started at Vancity, I realized that that’s what I was looking for. A place where my personal beliefs could take root in the organization. It could be spoken about, and those externalities or those other things that we’d always stifle in the workplace could be part of the work, vulnerable communities, and all the things we’re talking about.

I stayed for fourteen years which is like an order of magnitude longer than I stayed anywhere. It was a hard decision to leave because it’s such an amazing organization and that’s where we first met. I remember when you’re entering the Vancouver market, we met when I was at Vancity. I remember that conversation because I was struck by what you were doing here at Chandos. At Brightside, we’ve got a range of ages here, but there’s a lot of young staff. The thing I love about young staff is that for the most part, they don’t see a need to have that separation. Many people I talked to who are in their 20s and 30s, that makes no sense to them.

There’s society, there’s life, then there’s work and it’s all part of a similar spectrum. I think that working for an organization where we can have these discussions, and since we started this diversity inclusion work, we have had all staff meetings about respect in the workplace, which gets into issues around racism and discrimination, which gets into what we all want for Brightside and for our residents and for each other. They are conversations that a lot of other organizations I worked for back in my twenties could have never had safely, productively or there’s no desire to have them.

I do think that there’s something that the Chandos, Brightside, Vancity, and other organizations like this in the world will have an advantage for the younger employee who called BS on the idea that we leave those things at the door and pretend that there aren’t protests going on the street when they come to work. We’ve had a number of Zoom calls where we talked about that at Brightside because it’s part of the experience and people are emotional. How do you go through a weekend and then show up to work on Monday and pretend that you’re not affected by it, you’re not outraged, you’re not upset, or you’re not part of a community that is sick and tired of being treated a certain way? I think we’re all humans first.

This idea of being able to bring your whole self to work is an interesting one. We often as an organization have some causes and things that we fund and we support. It’s like the antithesis of the idea of bringing your whole self to work. When we do charitable giving as an organization, it probably should be aligned with the passions of the people in the organization. I think the end game of that is you end up with a whole bunch more organizations that you support and you’re involved with. It may not always be monetary support. It may be in-kind, time and those sorts of things, but it leads to a much richer tapestry of engagement in the local community when you start to support what your employees are passionate about.

One of the great thrills, when I worked at Vancity was I started getting called by credit unions. A lot of them are in the States around North America, asking for like, “Help us become more like Vancity.” I would either remotely or in some cases go to them and be part of their strategic planning session with our board. The big a-ha a lot of them had was that they stood for something in the community. They weren’t financial cooperatives and then they had their community giving program and the two are disconnected.

In some cases, there were credit unions that used to be a Teachers Credit Union and are now called TCU. They didn’t even think that they could make their brand around giving and supporting education and children that it was a throwback to where they came from was a signal of where their future lay. A lot of times I see organizations that I don’t understand why company X gave to charity Y. There’s no direct line as opposed to saying, “We’re in the telecommunications business, therefore we want to support getting cell phones or voicemail systems into the hand of the marginalized so that they have a place that people can leave the messages, they can stay in touch with their family and they can apply for jobs.”

Some of these disconnects are in telecommunications to those who are disadvantaged becomes a powerful thing. Lean in there around your mission and focus on that. There’s an obvious thing as opposed to giving to SPCA, which is a wonderful organization but anybody can give to that. There are some cases where you can use your mission, your mandate, and your purpose to make the connections. Then I think for employees, the lights go on, “I get it. We do this and therefore we give here and we support here.” It makes a clear story for your employees who otherwise have been befuddled by what the organization is trying to do.

Maybe there’s a theme in here around intentionality. If you want to have a diverse workplace, you have to be intentional about who you hire. If you want to talk about inclusivity, you have to be open to hiring and be more inclusive in terms of your practices, much like the story that I told in the conversation. Being open to hiring from different backgrounds is key. Also, the alignment between the values of the organization and where you give, all of it comes back to values. There needs to be that alignment or to your point, it doesn’t ring true with the employee.

While you’re talking, I thought that there’s a saying in the diversity inclusion world that I like. I’ve started thinking about quite differently which is diversity is asking someone to the dance, inclusion is asking them to dance. For those of us who are in organizations that are all in that journey, that the next step I’m seeing is through inclusivity is then letting them pick the music. I think much of the time we hire the Bobs of the world and then expect them to conform to our way of doing things.

Maybe the reason Bob is left out of the workforce is that he wants to do things a little bit different or needs to do things a little bit differently. One of the big opportunities, but it’s difficult for people like you and me, our boards, and our leadership teams, is that if we’re going to bring in people with neurodiversity, ethnic diversity or income diversity, that people who join us, they’re going to want us to do things a little bit differently.

They are not going to dance to the music we’ve been playing for X number of years or decades. We’ve got to not just hire them, but think about how we need to adapt and change to truly include them. That means we have to be curious and you keep using this word, I think it’s the exact right word, intentional around that. There’s an extra step we’re going to need to take around who gets to pick the music we’re all dancing to.

Yes. Exactly.

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